We can and must build more effective compensation systems for teachers; our students deserve it.

Fawn Johnson of National Journal, Education Insiders asks this week: How low do school districts’ budgets have to get for administrators to attempt such salary redesigns? Why is it so difficult to implement them? Would it help if base salaries for teachers were higher to begin with? What can states do to help school districts that want to attempt a redesign? Is it even a good idea? Are we seeing the beginning of the end of teacher tenure? My response….


Starting with your last question, I and others have talked before about why the term “teacher tenure” is a misnomer. In places such as Mississippi, which does not now nor has it ever had teacher tenure, its absence has not resulted in vastly improved outcomes for students or teachers. What you’re probably referring to here is not tenure in the proper sense, but rather the single step-salary scale most common in education, which you describe in your article. While it may now have outgrown its usefulness, ensuring that all teachers earned the same was put in place to end the legal practice of paying men more than women, white teachers more than black ones, and other such inequities. That’s why it’s been “held dear” among educators for so long.

Back in 2007-08, I was part of a group of teacher leaders from around the nation who worked on a TeacherSolutions™ report about setting up performance pay plans in school districts. Published by the Center for Teaching Quality, the report startled many who presumed that most teachers were opposed to any type of performance pay. I still stand by those recommendations. What we explained in that carefully developed report was our opposition to poorly designed merit pay plans, and gave some warnings:

  • Don’t focus on performance incentives and bonuses at the expense of improving your base-pay system (yes, more appropriate and attractive starting pay would help).
  • Don’t tie rewards only to gains in student test scores (more on that later).
  • Don’t offer incentives to just any warm body who wants to teach in a high needs, low-performing school.

One of the weakest pillars of most merit pay plans is the assumption that teachers can be motivated to achieve better results for our students through pay incentives. The majority of teachers are working as hard as we can but getting little recognition and less support. To suggest that we are withholding our best from our students and would perform higher in exchange for a few extra dollars is simply a lie.

Another flaw in many performance pay plans is the desire to tie them exclusively to students’ standardized test performance—another hotly debated issue. Among the many problems with such a clumsy approach to measuring student growth and teacher performance is that it denies the cumulative and recursive aspects of learning. For example, the work of a highly effective vocational teacher may be the trigger that helps some students advance in reading or math, but the work of those teachers is never considered in most value added formulas, only that of the teachers in the tested subject areas.

Moreover, students develop and mature as learners over time. A student may have been introduced to a concept or skill in 6th grade, had it reinforced in different ways by different teachers over several years, then in 10th or 11th grade that concept (seemingly) suddenly takes root and the student actually assumes ownership of the knowledge as evidenced by a deeper understanding and ability to apply the concept. Such “seeding” and “harvesting” occurs repeatedly over the course of any student’s educational career. Which individual teacher would get the “credit” for these accomplishments? The one who originally introduced the concept? The one who nurtured it along the way? Or the one in whose classroom the student happens to be when it matures? Add to this the educational influences to which students are exposed outside of the schoolhouse (media, activities, conversations, even…books!), and we have an infinite number of possibilities.

Learning does not develop in a linear pattern, or even in layers. Often, it develops in a spiral, with students appearing to move backwards in an area before leaping forward. As a mother who’s raised 11 children, I’ve seen that in my own house. We language arts teachers see this phenomena in writing classrooms all the time. We also see it when students move from one level to another, for example from elementary to middle school, or middle to high school. Consequently, any true measure of student learning and growth would need to take a longer and broader view of each student’s performance. Likewise, measuring teacher’s work accurately would require more than a cheap, fast comparison of this year’s numbers to last year’s.

Rather than tinker around the edges of outdated, underfunded single-salary schedules, my colleagues and I suggested that school districts sit down with their best teachers to create locally feasible professional compensation systems that:

  • Restructure compensation for teachers starting with professionally appropriate base pay and multi-level career paths built around proven qualities of effective teaching.
  • Use more sophisticated and accurate measures of teacher performance over time.
  • Create career lattices giving every teacher opportunity and options to advance or expand professionally.
  • Compensate teachers who exhibit important characteristics of teacher leadership such as collaboration with peers, conducting original classroom research, or contributing to policy-making.
  • Provide significant and flexible compensation for teachers who demonstrate effectiveness and perseverance in high-needs schools or in locally determined critical shortage areas.

These new systems may look very different across the country, and will require thoughtful, respectful collaboration among administrators, teachers, parents, legislators, and school boards. They could, however, be accomplished with good faith effort by all parties.

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